A total oil embargo on North Korea would only lead to war, as it did with imperial Japan
Paul Letters says North Korea recalls Japan in the 1930s with its militaristic regime and a leader seeking respect from recognised powers, but the US and its allies would be mistaken to react to it in the same way
Echoing 1930s imperial Japan, North Korea today is demanding respect. To use a phrase recently levelled at North Korea, by the 1930s Japan was “begging for war” (with China, at least), and an oil embargo merely hardened Japanese entrenchment.
A total oil embargo against North Korea would be likely to provoke the same result as it did with imperial Japan – war with the US and friends.
Last week, following a series of missile launches and an underground nuclear test, the US ambassador to the UN declared North Korea to be “begging for war”. This week, the 15-member UN Security Council unanimously passed a raft of new sanctions, including a universal ban on purchasing North Korean textiles (the country’s second-largest export, after coal) and the cessation of all gas exports to the isolated state.
What’s more interesting is what was culled from America’s original proposal: the use of force, if deemed necessary, to board and inspect ships to enforce these economic sanctions; an asset freeze; a travel ban for Kim Jong-un; visa cancellations for North Korean workers. The last one means Russia can still use North Korean labour (although no new visas are to be issued).
Most significantly, oil exports are to be capped but not banned outright: China and Russia know that a complete oil cut-off would heighten North Korea’s self-destructive tendencies and hasten its collapse, as occurred when the US and friends invoked an oil embargo on an increasingly aggressive imperial Japan.
The day imperial Japan surrendered
In both imperial Japan and modern-day North Korea, we see an authoritarian militaristic regime headed by a cult leader propagandised into a godlike figure. But, unlike Japan in the early 1930s, North Korea has no empire and no serious expectations of attaining one. However, it does share other characteristics with imperial Japan. Foremost is a desire to be respected by the more established powers, including those in the West. Alone, this demand for respect is of limited concern to the world; but when combined with rampant militarism and Kim’s self-serving and overblown sense of his own power, we are in the deepest nuclear crisis since the cold war.
Imperial Japan expressed a desire to join the club of world powers, and Kim’s regime isn’t so different. Today, North Korea is not alone in resenting America’s array of military bases, hardware and personnel where Asia meets the Pacific Ocean. China is another obvious dissenter, as is Russia.
The ends Russia and China seek for North Korea are different from those of the US and its allies. Moscow and Beijing are aligned in their objective that North Korea must stay as an anti-Western buffer between themselves and US allies South Korea and Japan. This desire to keep US-backed military personnel and hardware at a distance dictates Sino-Russian strategy. They want stability, hence their sanctions will stop short of anything seen as catastrophic, irrespective of continued aggressive posturing from Pyongyang.
UN unanimously backs sanctions against North Korea
But the outside world must remember that Kim’s every utterance is generated primarily for domestic consumption. Otherwise, we too are duped by Pyongyang’s propaganda.
Sanctions have not worked and now cannot work. North Korea is not going to give up what it has achieved. Russian President Vladimir Putin is right when he states that the regime would prefer to see the populace “eat grass” than give up nuclear weapons.
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A nuclear-armed North Korea is not only the future, it’s the present. There is no good answer, no “solution”.
A total oil embargo, or other tough measures such as unbridled powers of ship inspection, would squeeze the life out of the regime – which is why America wants it and China doesn’t. Such sanctions would further increase North Korea’s desperate isolationism and its dependence on its own military state, as it did with Japan in the 1930s. In time, it would make Kim feel like he has nothing to lose by lashing out.
Kim is not seeking to provoke the demolition of his nation, as happened to Japan in 1945. He is seeking to emulate Pakistan or India. Both were condemned for developing nuclear weapons but after a time were accepted into the club and accorded – however begrudgingly – greater respect by regional and Western powers.
Paul Letters is a novelist, journalist and historian. See paulletters.com